By Bonnie Kristian
“There is a lesson,” former President George W. Bush said in a speech at the Reagan library in California on Wednesday, “when the United States decides to not take the lead, and withdraw. Vacuums can be created when U.S. presence recedes, and that vacuum is generally filled with, you know, people who don’t share the same ideology, the same sense of human rights and human dignity and freedom that we do.”
Pursuing his theme of leadership vs. withdrawal, American supervision vs. a vacuum for evil, Bush continued: “There’s an isolationist tendency in our country, and I would argue that’s dangerous to our national security and doesn’t befit the character of the country.”
The stark dichotomy Bush envisions is compelling, but it is also false. This discredited neoconservative canard ignores recent history and present reality alike, dismissing the role misguided U.S. interventions have played in fostering the very power vacuums Bush fears while discounting the multitude of strategy alternatives between policing the world, on the one hand, and protectionist isolationism, on the other.
These obvious flaws have so far failed to undercut this dichotomy’s siren song, and it is that very seduction which makes productive foreign policy conversations so difficult on the right today. The rise of President Trump adds further complication: His own foreign policy agenda remains mostly undefined, and his #NeverTrump opponents were split in their criticism on this front, some casting Trump as the second coming of Neville Chamberlain and others worried his self-professed “militarism” would override his critique of nation-building.
Such divisions were on ample display at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) late last month—if mostly overshadowed by other antics on-stage and off. That this quite literally vital issue got short shrift is unfortunate, because in counterbalance to the general push toward the world police role Bush advocated, one panel introduced a welcome note of realism and restraint.
Featuring The American Conservative's Daniel McCarthy and Charles Koch Institute Vice President William Ruger, the panel addressed that middle ground between incessant interventionism and total isolationism Bush refused to countenance. “There are many options between those two,” Ruger argued. “The United States should stand up in its diplomacy and rhetoric for values of democracy and liberties” without using our military haphazard to enforce those values on the world. We must learn again to narrowly define our national interests, to differentiate “between those things that [are] necessary for America's safety, and those that [are] unnecessary or even harmful.”
It is precisely an inability to parse that difference which has led to the reckless, expensive, and often counterproductive foreign policy maintained by the bipartisan Washington establishment for the past 16 years.
The Republican Party’s selection of Trump—who lambastes the Iraq war and defies categorization inside Bush’s either-or paradigm—forces the conclusion that the right is looking for a new course in foreign policy. For sensible conservatives with an eye on fiscal sanity and national defense alike, realism is worth serious consideration. To believe the “United States is the greatest country in the world,” as Ruger said at CPAC, “doesn’t mean we’re responsible for every good or bad thing that happens in the world.”
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by The Huffington Post on March 8, 2017. Read more HERE.